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ConflictsMiddle East

On the ground in Gaza: 'The worst scenes I've ever seen'

Tania Krämer
October 21, 2023

Two weeks into a massive Israeli airstrike campaign after the October 7 Hamas attacks, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip tell DW of their fears, struggles to survive and feelings of betrayal by the international community.

Children on a donkey-drawn trailer and others on mopeds, in cars and on trucks flee south from Gaza City after the Israeli army ordered them to evacuate
Residents are following Israeli orders to evacuate Gaza City but say they feel safe nowhere as missiles come down around them and an Israeli ground offensive seems imminentImage: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

The constant fear of death and the sense of loss have been exhausting, says Basel, a Palestinian aid worker trying to find shelter in the south of the Gaza Strip.

"When I drove from Gaza [City] to the south, it was the worst scenes I've ever seen. Thousands walking. And I wished I had a train or a truck to take all of them but I only have my car with the whole family squeezed in," the senior aid worker — whose name has been changed for this article to respect his wish for anonymity — told DW by phone.

Basel fled with his family from his home in a residential neighborhood of Gaza City to the southern part of the small enclave after Israel ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza ahead of an expected ground invasion.

An estimated 1 million people used to live in the area marked for evacuation, which includes Gaza City. Some stayed behind as they had no means of transportation, or because they had elderly or sick relatives unable to move.

"I wish the Earth had swallowed me instead of having to see my people having to go through this," Basel said. "People were simply walking on foot towards the south, carrying mattresses, big plastic bags with some clothing. And not everyone has a family or a relative to give them a place to stay. And all the time, airstrikes continue."

A young man carries a plastic bag with bread as other look through the rubble of a bombed out building in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza
Necessities such as bread and water have become increasingly difficult to find for Gaza residents caught between Hamas terrorists and Israeli airstrikesImage: SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Hours in line for bread, water in short supply

Last Saturday and Sunday, the Israeli army gave residents a specific time frame and instructions for safe passage along two main roads from the north to the south, yet airstrikes have continued in the southern part of Gaza in recent days where many have now sought refuge.

At a bakery in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the south of Gaza, people had to wait hours for bread. Among those standing in line was Mohammed Taha, a father of four who is from the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City.

"I've been waiting here for almost two hours to get some bread for my family," said Taha. He is now taking refuge with his children, wife and other relatives at an UNWRA school in the Nuseirat refugee camp. "The water situation is difficult, we don't have enough to wash. We are in a miserable situation, but I am lucky compared to the people who are sleeping in the street."

His four children constantly cry, he said. Adding that the feeling of not being safe was the worst, as the area where they sought refuge had also been hit by Israeli airstrikes. "My kids are terrified, we try to calm them down, and tell them this won't last for long. But I feel from deep inside, it will be very long."

Israel forces gather along borders with Gaza and Lebanon

War in Gaza, yet again

Residents of the small enclave on the Mediterranean Sea have experienced four wars in the past 15 years and numerous shorter military escalations. The territory has been isolated from the rest of the world by Israel and partially by Egypt for more than 16 years — ever since the militant group Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is designated a terror organization by the EU, as well as the United States, Germany and other nations.

More than 1,400 people have been killed in Israel since the beginning of this latest conflict — most in the initial terror attacks on October 7, when militants from Gaza breached the fence separating Israel and Gaza and rampaged through southern communities, killing hundreds of Israeli civilians and soldiers and taking more than 200 people hostage. Rockets have also been launched toward Israel every day since October 7.

In retaliation, Israel has been targeting the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, naval and artillery fire while preparing for a ground invasion. The Israeli army says they don't target civilians but only Hamas. It has also shuttered its crossings and stopped delivering electricity, fuel and food to the besieged enclave.

More than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed, among them more than 1,500 children; more than 12,000 people have been injured, according to the local Hamas authorities. Hundreds are said to be missing, buried under the rubble of bombed homes.

Israeli Defense Forces troops staging tanks, buldozers and armored personnel carriers near the Gaza border
Israel has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists and looks to be staging a full-scale ground operation to root out Hamas terrorists in GazaImage: Jim Hollander/newscom/picture alliance

'I am not sure if we will survive this' 

The feeling of safety or protection is long gone, says Basel. The aid worker is increasingly angry that the international community talks about Gaza only in humanitarian terms, but doesn't question why the civilian population must pay the price.

"Give me one case where a government received permission to invade a whole neighborhood or a whole city, because a crime happened. Because somebody living in that neighborhood committed a crime?" he said. 

After days of shuttle diplomacy and solidarity visits by international leaders to Israel, Egypt is expected to open the Rafah crossing to allow in some trucks with international aid. If Hamas confiscates the aid, "it will end," US President Joe Biden warned during his visit to Israel. Egyptian sources say roads need to be repaired at the border as they have been damaged by Israeli airstrikes. It is unclear how aid will be distributed once it enters the heavily bombarded territory. 

For many in Gaza who have lost their homes and whose lives have been shattered, this is all too little, too late. The international community, says aid worker Basel, is failing the people of Gaza.  

He is disappointed and says he doesn't care much for help, humanitarian aid or safe passage alone. "I want protection as a human being."

People in Gaza endure Israeli attacks as they wait for aid

Hazem Balousha contributed from Nuseirat in the Gaza Strip. 

Edited by: Carla Bleiker and Jon Shelton